The morning mist slowly drifts through the mountains of Sapa as we traipse along the footpaths behind our Hmong guide, Chi. To the far east and west, clouds hug and obscure the green and brown hills. The pure freshness of the air is almost overwhelming, especially for those more accustomed to concrete jungles.
Located northwest of Hanoi, the small town of Sapa, Vietnam, is home to eight different hill tribes, chief among them the Hmong. With strong ties to China, many Hmong first migrated to Vietnam (as well as Laos and Thailand) during the 18th century; large populations have since settled in these mountains and now their unique and rich traditions have become an attraction for visitors from around the globe.
Dressed in a traditional indigo robe and wearing two colorful armbands made of hemp, Chi is a member of the Sapa Sisters, a one-of-a-kind grassroots-run tour guide operation run by Hmong women. Originally comprising just four guides, the staff has grown to 16 women who take visitors on custom treks based on their clients' interests, fitness level, and time, be it a quick afternoon jaunt or a three-day adventure.
As we continued along the paths, the clouds began to dissipate, revealing stunning views of this small mountain town. We were surrounded by cascading rice terraces and mountain peaks, each decorated with a splash of color from the vibrant dress of the hill tribespeople living all around them. We ambled down the mountainside to the nearest town as Chi hopped easily from rock to rock, all while threading hemp for next year's garments. In the beginning of a yearlong process, Chi licks and twists dried hemp, turning it into yarn that she wraps around her fist. Once finished she takes the yarn back to her sewing machine and indigo awaiting her at home.
At the village we took a break while lunch was served, before heading back out to hike through various rice plantations. An important part of the tour is that it's informational, and Chi explained the process of cultivating and harvesting crops here. After a walk through rice paddies we ventured on to waterfalls, then through a bamboo forest and ended the day at Chi's house, where we looked on as her son fed their livestock. As chickens clucked and pigs oinked around us, we stood out on Chi's doorstep, and our eyes rested on a mountaintop--the only skyscraper as far as the eye could see. [From $30 a day; sapasisters.webs.com]